Lessons In Fighting Crime

January 09, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

EAST PALO ALTO, CALIF — EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Not long ago, drug dealers armed with semi-automatic and automatic weapons controlled the streets of this poverty-stricken community.

The police department -- understaffed and ineffective -- was paralyzed by investigations into brutality and corruption. By 1992, violence was so rampant that East Palo Alto was branded the murder capital of the nation, with 42 killings in a city of fewer than 24,000 people.

In adjoining cities such as Palo Alto and Menlo Park, affluent residents found spent bullets in their yards and talked of building traffic barriers at key intersections to hold back the rising tide of crime.

Now, in a remarkable transformation, East Palo Alto has become a model of intensive policing and regional cooperation that some leaders hope can be adopted in high-crime neighborhoods elsewhere.

A police crackdown using officers borrowed from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, San Mateo County and the California Highway Patrol has cut the murder rate in East Palo Alto by 86 percent. Two years ago, there were eight murders on one block; in 1993, there were six killings in the entire city.

During the police crackdown, East Palo Alto has tried to create a new civic atmosphere and has embarked on an economic development program.

With the help of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the city has sponsored a summer program for children, put in new park playground equipment, fixed potholes in the streets, cleaned up vacant lots and towed away 1,600 junked cars.

"I have always said the solution is not just police," said East Palo Alto Mayor Sharifa Wilson. "The overall concern is to get to the root of the problem. We have to figure out a way to bring money into the community."

Others point out that most crime-ridden communities do not have prosperous neighbors like Palo Alto and Menlo Park willing to donate police officers, resources, equipment and staff time.

Wedged between San Francisco Bay and the wealthy cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the 2 1/2 -square-mile community of East Palo Alto has long been the outcast of the San Francisco #F Peninsula.

After World War II, with widespread redlining by lenders and real estate agents, blacks settled in the low-income community. With no supermarket or bank and few jobs, the drug trade has flourished in recent years.

Like the Stanford students who once came for alcohol, narcotics users drove to East Palo Alto from surrounding cities to buy drugs.

In fact, police trace much of the recent surge in violence to drug deals. In 1992, 16 of the 42 people murdered in East Palo Alto were outsiders who had apparently come in search of drugs.

The city also has been beset by gang violence as the Latino population has risen, setting off rivalries between racial groups and neighborhoods.

When murders soared to 42 in 1992 -- double the annual total of previous years -- leaders of neighboring communities were shocked into action. Elected officials in Menlo Park and Palo Alto came to the realization that crime transcended East Palo Alto.

By chance last year, the mayors of all three cities were women. Unlike their male predecessors, they were able to break down much of the hostility between the cities that had grown over the years.

An important part of their cooperative plan was that East Palo Alto officials call the shots, whether it was in running the multiagency police force or in implementing an economic development plan. With that understanding, the two wealthier cities assigned staff members to help East Palo Alto, solicited private donations and, in the case of Menlo Park, donated an old street sweeper.

But the first step, they agreed, was to beef up the police force, which, at 35 officers, was so understaffed it could not put more than three officers on the street at a time. Officers spent most of their shifts running from crime to crime, ignoring all but the most violent incidents.

Palo Alto donated four officers; Menlo Park provided two. Later, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department brought in 18 deputies, and the state assigned 12 Highway Patrol officers. In ,, all, the outside officers more than doubled the strength of the department.

Under the direction of newly appointed East Palo Alto Police Chief Burnham Matthews, the multiagency police force has tried to pick its targets, forming teams for rapid response and conducting surveillance of suspected drug dealers.

If there is a lesson in the East Palo Alto experience for other cities, it is to focus on small neighborhoods, balancing a heavy police presence with economic development and community improvements, said Capt. John Sterling of the city's police department.

"Law enforcement alone is not the answer," he said. "It's the immediate first step."

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